Sunday, June 21, 2009


The airwaves (This American Life, The Story, etc.) have been full of father-related content this weekend, it being Father's Day today. But oddly, almost all of it has been about estrangement--not knowing one's father, not being able to communicate, being wounded by dad. Perhaps that isn't so strange after all...dads can be more mysterious in their love than moms can, more difficult to reach.

That was true with me and my dad. He was a pastor, and because I often felt estranged from God--wracked by doubts even as a 10-year-old--I also felt estranged on some levels from him. Of course, he didn't know about the doubts most of the time. But there was an inner desperation I felt to "make things right" somehow with both dads: father and Father.

Now I don't feel that estrangement. And both dads are together now--my father died about 15 years ago. I was with him at the moment of his passing, after years of illness and months of pain, weakness, and the desperation to breathe that heart failure brings.

What I remember of my dad is the moments of gentleness, the quirky oddities. He had a "silly walk" that he liked to do, and his favorite joke was: "What's the difference between a duck?" (what?) "One leg is both the same." I still don't get it...and it makes me smile to think that my dad was such a fan of absurdist humor.

Every Sunday morning, he would sit in his old blue bathrobe in the living room, going over his sermon notes, practicing his sermon in a whisper. After he died, I got some of those sermon notes--main ideas jotted in his rushed, small-capital writing, what remains of his weekly spiritual and intellectual work. I always intended to try to fill some of them in, turn them into essays that would turn into a book that I could give my sibs. But it never happened--I just like to look at the notes sometimes and remember him in his blue bathrobe, whispering in the living room. Before he entered the ministry, dad was a brilliant engineer--he could have been extremely successful, lots of money, etc. I admired his sacrifice.

I used to play the oboe as a kid, and in high school I was in a woodwind quintet. One day we were "booked" to play for the state music educators convention, and as I frequently was when I had to play in front of crowds, I was terrified. So anxious that I was sick to my stomach, could barely breathe. My dad had given me a ride to the high school where we were playing, and I said that maybe I was coming down with the flu. Of course, dad knew what was going on. But instead of trying to convince me to go in there and play, instead of giving me a lecture or even advice, he just sat silently in the car and held my hand. We sat there for a long time, long enough that I would be late to go in for the performance. And then he started the car and drove me home. One could argue that dad should have urged me on at that moment, that he was merely enabling my anxiety. But what I remember about that is his silence and the warmth of his hand.

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